Greg Johnsman took over Marsh Hen Mill, formerly known as Geechie Boy Mill, in 2006 | photos by Ruta Smith

By chance or providence 

Marsh Hen Mill, formerly known as Geechie Boy Mill, has gone through the ringer in the years since Greg Johnsman took over the company in 2006: A complete product change, massive growth on a national scale, the milling of heirloom and ancient grains, Covid-19 and a controversial name that lead to a company-wide rebrand. 

But none of that has hindered the momentum the 44-year-old Johnsman and his wife Betsy continue to carry, even after the change from a decades-old company to the current Marsh Hen Mill. Johnsman turned a passion into a living, and a living into carving his own path and legacy, with the help of some old guys, a few grist mills and the internet. 

Learning from the old guys

Growing up in a rural upstate South Carolina farming community, Johnsman absorbed something new every day from his family and the farmers and grain millers who occupied his world. Learning from third generation millers like Jack Brock how a hard stone wheel could convert hard kernels of corn into grits and cornmeal was just par for the course. 

“I spent my weekends hanging out with him and some old guys, and I didn’t know I was learning anything,” Johnsman said. “I thought I was just helping him mill some corn but he’d be like, ‘Come over here and put your hand on this bearing.’ He was constantly teaching me, but I never realized he was teaching me. It was just a friendship.”

44-year-old Greg Johnsman (above) has been working with grains all his life and strives to find the best flavors. 

Through hanging out with Brock, Johnsman was also schooled on the mechanics of vintage grist milling equipment: “There’s all these tricks and things I never thought I was learning. I thought everybody knew how to pour babbit (a metal that’s melted and used to make bearings). I thought everybody knew how to sharpen a stone.”

Birds were a passion of Johnsman’s grandfather, so Johnsman also grew up immersed in a world of wildlife and poultry. He would go on to become one of the last to graduate from Clemson in 2001 with a concentration in poultry, before the school shifted the focus to animal and veterinary science. 

It was at Clemson where he met his wife, Betsy McKoy, a farm girl from Wadmalaw Island. 

Johnsman went on to receive his graduate degree in 2002 in agriculture education, as teaching about agriculture was another of his passions. But after scanning through newspapers and cycling through jobs with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, Johnsman found himself going back to Betsy’s family farm on Edisto in 2003. “I remember the first time coming over to the Lowcountry in college with my wife,” he said. “She rolled down the windows and said, ‘You smell that?’ And I was like, ‘It’s terrible.’ She said: ‘It’s that pluff mud. It’s home.’ At the time, it didn’t make sense, but I get it now.”

Geechie Boy, and almost all of the farms on Edisto Island for that matter, were known as “truck farms.” Farmers loaded their produce onto trucks, and those trucks immediately carried that produce to trains bound for the Northeast. A tomato could literally be picked one day and be bought a couple of days later at a 59th street corner store in Manhattan.  

Thanks to Betsy, Johnsman met another mentor in the form of father-in-law, Adair McKoy III. He had long shared ownership of the Edisto-based Geechie Boy brand produce company with the late Raymond Tumbleston. Known across the Edisto community as the “Geechie Boy,” Tumbleston was a master grower of tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupes. He is today still considered a pioneer in agriculture technology. 

A grim future

Geechie Boy specialized in Roma, cherry and grape tomatoes and other vegetables in its early days. But when Johnsman joined the family farm 17 years ago with hopes of farming until his old age, Adair McKoy: “shot down my whole future,” Johnsman said. “He looked at me and said, ‘There will be no tomato farm for you, son.’” 

McKoy knew the smaller operation of Geechie Boy was unsustainable with larger farms and their tight profit margins taking over the market. But being a young, naive kid, Johnsman still just wanted to grow food. So he did, opening a roadside market called Geechie Boy Market on the property. To locals and folks “from off,” Geechie Boy Market & Mill was known as “the last or first stop” on Edisto Island. Johnsman sold 90 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and vegetables along with locally produced grits, homemade donuts, ice cream and gifts. “[McKoy] told me when I opened that market that I would never be able to make a living,” Johnsman added. “And he was 100% right. We’re blessed to kind of have people pick up grits and stuff and it helps but I couldn’t make a sole living off of it.”

 Johnsman’s sister-in-law Katie (above) helps the family mill corn into grits and cornmeal, sometimes as early as three in the morning.

To nudge him into the future, Betsy and her father encouraged Johnsman to look to his past by refurbishing a vintage 1945 grist mill, and putting it into operation, so “at least you can show people what you love to do,” he said. Johnsman purchased the old red mill named Ruby, from Lamar Berry in Saluda, S.C. He spent two and a half years restoring it, using old parts from other mills for the simple fact that many of the parts he needed weren’t produced anymore. 

Slowly, the focus shifted from vegetables, to milling — selling locally produced grits, cornmeal and rice with the help of machine-driven 20-inch, 600-pound circular stones to grind corn vertically into grits and cornmeal. “I was trying to grow all these vegetables, and I didn’t have any time for the milling and the milling got to the point where I’d run through the night,” he said. “And eventually, I had to learn to grow up and just focus on grain.”

One of the oldest grains Johnsman produced is believed to be one of the world’s first domesticated seeds, farro piccolo. Others include Carolina Gold rice, Guinea Flint grits and Jimmy Red cornmeal, which can be found around the country in stores like Whole Foods. 

Johnsman chose to focus on slower production to keep the natural oils and flavors of the grain intact and provide customers with the best flavor possible. “Truthfully, this is the worst milling environment,” he said. “This humidity, everything is against us … but we’re flavor seekers.”

Eventually, Johnsman was grinding 2,000 pounds of heirloom corn into flour, meal and Geechie Boy grits every week and shipping the mill’s output to around 200 restaurants around the country — including storied local establishments like Husk and FIG. Typically, the mill utilized the McKoy farm to grow its own grains and crops, but in 2016, when Hurricane Matthew hit, nearly 80% of their crops were destroyed. That’s when Johnsman learned “not to put all of my eggs in one basket.” 

After Matthew, Johnsman would partner with farmers and purveyors all over the state, and he was “always looking for more.” Corn and rice supplies would come to include Johnsman’s brother-in-law Adair McKoy IV from Wadmalaw Island’s Yellow House Farms, White House Farms in Georgetown, S.C., and near the Ashepoo River. Corn, peas and other crops came from Thompson Farms in Holly Hill and Ole Tyme Bean Co. in Elloree. 

Finding his legacy

The onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic was a brutal time for Johnsman and Betsy. Not only would Johnsman battle a debilitating case of the virus and lose his own father, Michael Johnsman, to Parkinson’s, the family would lose Betsy’s father to the disease. It was devastating, said Johnsman. To him, Adair was, “an encyclopedia for me growing in the Lowcountry.”

In 2020, amid the pandemic and Black Lives Matters protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., Johnsman was hit with online protests of his own — over a name. Though his company had been called “Geechie Boy” since long before he was ever involved, the term “Geechee” is generally recognized along with “Gullah” to describe Lowcountry descendants of enslaved Africans. Some saw the term as a cultural appropriation.

According to Johnsman, the name was never a concern for the people on Edisto Island, as it was less about race and more about place. Indeed Raymond “Geechie Boy” Tumbleston was white. But as Johnsman’s products grew in scale and popularity, that changed. So he and Betsy decided to change the name of the company. “We hit little storms of people with misappropriation … but I realized it was never my legacy. So when you realize that, it’s like, you know, we’ve had a storm or two before, so let’s do something that’s us.”

As the Johnsmans agonized over what that “something” was, and how to completely rebrand a company that had been in operation for decades, they sought a little divine intervention. “At our lowest point of trying to figure out the first storm was Psalm 91:4,” Johnsman said. “That just says that you’re under the protection of God. And that’s our belief as Christians and where we were.”

As Johnsman sees it, the feathers of the clapper rail, also known as the marsh hen, protected the family in their time of need. So they renamed the company Marsh Hen Mill. “We just felt that the marsh and the clapper rail was us,” he said. “And, you know, it’s trying to do the right thing by the community and right thing by people. Every time I didn’t know how we were going to pay for it, an order came in. We didn’t get farther ahead but we’re blessed just to keep going.

“We have customers that have been with us since the start,” Johnsman added. “We have little ladies that will just send us a blank check and say, ‘Send some grits to my family.’ They don’t go online and it’s a very true and humbling experience to meet people that are like ‘No, we’re trying to keep the old ways alive.’ ”

Two signs

What Johnsman said he didn’t realize, too, is the legacy and impact he’s already had in nearly two decades on Edisto Island. Out in front of the mill, there had long been a sign that read “Jesus is Lord of Edisto.” Eventually, it simply fell apart. But when it was gone, people asked, “Would you please put that sign back up?” The old sign was unsalvageable, so Johnsman ordered a new sign. The same week, someone from the community gave Johnsman a check for the cost of the sign: “Just to say thank you for putting it back up,” he said. “So it was like it was meant to be.”

Marsh Hen Market & Mill is “the first and last stop” on Edisto Island for provisions before and after hitting the beach

The old water wheel in front of Marsh Hen Market is rotting, but a local firefighter offered to build something else in its place. “I have antiques because I keep parts for fixing parts,” Johnsman said. “So he came Sunday and got a ton of old rusty parts, and he’s gonna build a metal marsh hen to sit out there with all the metal parts. It kind of puts, you know, my everlasting stamp on this island.”

For Johnsman, what Marsh Hen Mill provides is beyond the grain sitting in the plate, or even the distinct flavors it produces; it’s about the connections shared amongst those who eat it and the lasting effects it may carry.

“Really, we’re a memory business,” he said. “That’s how we kind of relate. It’s exciting to us to see these memories passed down, and we can be part of sharing the table with everybody.”

Tales from the mill

The truck
“That’s the garbage truck McKoy had when I first met his daughter that he made me drive. He was like, ‘Son, I need you to go to town. It has no first gear. It has no brakes. Go.’” Johnsman has since renovated and repainted the truck as an homage to McKoy. The swan hood ornament even glows in the dark.

Carolina Gold Rice
Johnsman purchased several machines on the Japanese “gray market,” as he called it, to process long-grain rice. The parts of the machine were made specifically for long grains, but when he tried to process Carolina Gold, which is classified as long grain, the rice came out as “junk,” he said. It turns out that the screens for sifting the rice on the Japanese machines were for Japanese long grain rice, which is completely different.

“We classified Carolina gold as long grain for romantic stories,” he explained. “We had the right rice, we just told them the wrong product. So then I had to get them to send all the new parts over. So we put them in and then all of a sudden, you know, it started working perfectly, but it’s like, I had no idea!”

Barrel-aged rice
Johnsman is currently working on a six-month to year-long experiment of barrel-aged rice with bay leaves to test the different flavors it may produce. The experiment stems from accounts of barrel-stored rice on ships crossing the Atlantic in centuries past. Johnsman has several barrels, about 200-300 gallons of rice total, in different environments to test the flavors; some in a climate-controlled cooler, for instance.

“I think there’s something in the aeration,” he said. “I think there’s something of the bay leaf because bay is very strong and dried bay is even stronger, so that intrigues me. And then the barrels, they’re all oak. But by God, we opened up one from a distillery that was wet, and when I say wet it was like they drained it the day before. I’m a little worried it was too wet but I don’t know. I think they say there’s like 2% of alcohol left in the wood when it’s wet or something. That’s a lot. I don’t know what that’s gonna do. Like how alcohol dissipates if that’s going to do any change, but I love the thought process of it.”

Tall plant, no corn
Johnsman learned a lesson about open pollination and the effects of a plant’s growing cycle after experimenting with corn seeds from Mexico. A worker sent him an image of a corn cob about four feet long.

“I was like, ‘I’m gonna be rich, we’re gonna be rich,’ because that’s a lot less corn and look at how long those things are!”

After planting the seeds, the corn started growing, up to 18 feet tall, according to Johnsman, but no corn was produced.

“My father-in-law laughed at me, and he goes, ‘Son, where’s that corn from? Not from here.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s from Mexico.’ He said, ‘You’ll never get a length a day and where you’re based on the equator, all that is screwed up in the growing cycle. So if somebody brings me prized corn from Mexico or from New Mexico, it’s not gonna grow here. We don’t have the right growing season.”

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